Under mounting pressure to be more open on foreign policy issues, Mitt Romney tried to do just that during his six-day trip to visit three American allies — but repeatedly found himself having to backtrack on the things he said.
The Romney campaign shrugged off those hiccups, saying the trip to Britain, Israel and Poland was a success and gave the presumptive Republican presidential nominee a chance to appear on the world stage with foreign leaders and highlight key differences with President Obama over American policy toward Israel.
Mr. Romney showcased his friendship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has had frosty relations with Mr. Obama, and accepted the endorsement of former Polish President Lech Walesa, the anti-communist hero and Nobel Peace Prize winner.
“It’s been a trip to three places far apart on the map. But for an American, you can’t get much closer to the ideals and convictions of my own country,” Mr. Romney said Tuesday in a speech at the University of Warsaw. “Our nations belong to the great fellowship of democracies. We speak the same language of freedom and justice. We uphold the right of every person to live in peace.”
The 15-minute address capped a trip aimed at bolstering Mr. Romney’s foreign-policy resume, showing he can operate on the global stage, and it was designed to highlight his vow to deepen ties with American allies while taking a stronger stance against potential adversaries. But at times, he ended up irking friends — and insulting enemies.
The trip got off to a shaky start when he seemed to insult Britain, which prides itself on maintaining a special relationship with the U.S.
Mr. Romney, who rescued the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, timed his trip to coincide with the opening of the Summer Olympics in London, and he delivered a frank assessment of Britain’s preparedness, saying some of the security issues were “disconcerting.” He dialed back that criticism later by saying the city was “ready.”
From Britain, he traveled to Israel, where he distanced himself from the Obama administration by saying Jerusalem should be the rightful capital and suggesting that he would follow through on a U.S. law that calls for the U.S. Embassy to be moved to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.
But after an aide asserted Mr. Romney would “respect” an Israeli decision to launch a unilateral strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, the candidate backtracked and refused to say whether that was true. In doing so, he passed on a chance to distance himself from the Obama administration, which has warned against a unilateral Israeli strike.
He also had to do damage control, denying that he was insulting Palestinians when he told a group of Jewish donors at a fundraiser Monday that the Israeli culture has allowed them to be more economically successful than their Palestinian neighbors. “That’s an interesting topic that deserves scholarly analysis, but I actually didn’t address that,” Mr. Romney said Tuesday in a Fox News interview.
The Obama campaign pounced on the stumbles. Senior campaign adviser Robert Gibbs, in a conference call with reporters, called Mr. Romney’s world tour an “embarrassing disaster.”
“He both offended our closest ally and triggered a troubling reaction in the most sensitive region of the world,” Mr. Gibbs said. “He certainly didn’t prove to anyone that he passed the commander-in-chief test.”
Romney spokesman Ryan Williams fired back that Mr. Obama has “weakened America’s position in the world and frayed relationships with our closest allies.”
“Gov. Romney has laid out a foreign policy that will strengthen our interests, ensure our security, and let our friends know they have a partner in the White House,” Mr. Williams said.
In his speech Tuesday, Mr. Romney embraced Poland, saying the Eastern European nation has no greater ally than the United States and that its economic transformation from communism to the free market provides the world — and by implication the Obama White House — with “a shining example of the prosperity that economic opportunity can bring.”
“Your success today is a reminder that the principles of free enterprise can propel an economy and transform a society,” Mr. Romney said, touting the same limited-government message that he has used to draw contrast with Mr. Obama on U.S. soil.
Mr. Romney, though, did not shed light on how his foreign policy approach toward Poland would differ from that of Mr. Obama, who angered some Poles when he started pursuing a “reset” in relations with neighbor and historic rival Russia early in his term. Some also took umbrage with the Democrat’s decision in 2009 to shelve an agreement the Bush administration had inked to put 10 missile interceptors in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic.
The Republican did not mention the George W. Bush-era missile-defense program or weigh in publicly on Mr. Obama’s proposed replacement system. He brought up Russia, a country that he previously labeled the nation’s No. 1 “geopolitical foe,” just once by saying its “once-promising advances toward a free and open society have faltered.”
James M. Lindsay, vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said that the foreign-policy positions staked on the campaign trail are not always an accurate barometer for what someone will do after they are elected because “campaigning is about promising — governing is about choosing.”
Mr. Obama and two predecessors, Bill Clinton and Mr. Bush, on the campaign trail have backed the notion of Jerusalem being the Israeli capital and the U.S. Embassy site, then, once in office, postponed plans to move the embassy for fear of undermining Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
“If past is prologue, should Gov. Romney become President Romney, he is likely to follow suit?” Mr. Lindsay said, adding that Mr. Romney is not the first presidential candidate “who didn’t spell everything out in great detail and he won’t be the last.”